Why a Textbook on World War I?

Over the next few months, I’ll be blogging about my just-released textbook, The Politics of the First World War, as well as what I learned about international relations by putting the course together, teaching it, and writing the textbook that collects its lectures. (You can find these posts by clicking on the #textbook tag.)

There’s a not-unpopular sense in which studying the First World War isn’t just passé but possibly even misleading, at least for those of us that like to make general statements about the workings of international politics. It’s been done to death, used to generate too many conjectures and theories. Nor can such an outrageous outlier be all that representative of everyday politics of (and conflicts in) the international system. All told, the Great War is an example of charismatic megafauna, the giant panda or the tiger all the kids want to see at the zoo but that doesn’t represent the rest of the animal kingdom all that well.

And yet I taught a course, then wrote a textbook, about The First World War. What was I thinking?1

It’s worth answering that question, because the outlier claim (which I think I saw William Spaniel make somewhere among the internets) and Cullen’s giant panda argument have legs if we’re trying to use the Great War as a jumping-off point for half-baked generalizations.

But that’s (thankfully) not what I’m doing here.

First, the textbook uses the war as a device to teach about international security and game theory in general. Science is very often about the identification of non-obvious commonalities between ostensibly different things (as opposed to, say, the exhaustive cataloging of fairly obvious differences). And the textbook turns the collected wisdom of modern theories of war and politics back on the First World War. It’s an example of many strategic tensions and fundamental political concepts, but it’s not even the only one. I also spend time on the Korean, Russo-Japanese, and Chinese Civil Wars, the politics of nuclear weapons (it’s my book, so I can turn on the time machine when I feel like it), etc. But the goal is to show that things that seem unique, like the July Crisis, which Christopher Clark rightly calls perhaps “the most complex [event] of modern times, perhaps of any time so far,” are really special cases of things far more general…things about which political science already has some good ideas.

Second, the book is ruthlessly committed to a “real time” approach to explanation, casting off inherited hindsight for a laser-like focus on the incentives and constraints and uncertainties that confronted the characters in our story as they faced them. Generals and officers settling into (and stuck in) strategies of attrition. Chancellors and Kaisers, Tsars and prime ministers, debating the merits of war and the credibility of bargains on the table. Neutrals weighing belligerence as the war crept ever closer to their territories. Coalition partners wrangling over burden-sharing and who would be dominant in the postwar negotiations. Titanic strategic gambles, like unrestricted submarine warfare and the Kaiserschlacht, that promised only victory or defeat. Victors redrawing the map of a damaged world, balancing the needs of their own recovery against the hope (vain, as it turned out) to prevent such a thing from happening again. They all look different, and radically so—often more sympathetic, sometimes less—once we shed a century’s worth of hindsight and efforts by the players after the fact to shape the narrative. Approaching and explaining the war this way was a wild ride, and I learned as much as (if not more than) my students in crafting the course, giving the lectures, solving the games, and writing the book.

So, to those who rightly worry that yet another case study of World War I might invade your IR classroom, rest easy. It’s about what we can learn about the First World War by using the collected wisdom and tools of modern theories of war, and it recognizes—explicitly and often pretty aggressively—this basic truth of social science:

Hindsight is excellent for generating puzzles, but it’s very often shit for solving them.

Sadly, no giant pandas here.2 But there are plenty of indulgent Star Wars footnotes, incisive Rambo references, a gloriously apt Eddie Vedder epigraph, and a bonus story about Stalin murdering his pet bird with a pipe. Enjoy.

  1. You mean apart from “the students will totally be into this at the centennial, and maybe I can trick them into doing math”? Sure. I can talk about that. ↩︎
  2. But give me birds any day. They’re dinosaurs! ↩︎

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